A taste of history and the path to modern breeding
Marquis wheat is an heirloom variety that holds special significance in the history of wheat breeding and cultivation in North America. The name Marquis first began to appear on my radar many years ago when I was looking through some historical agriculture bulletins dating back to the early 1920s, searching for any mention of wheat varieties that had been successfully grown in California. It popped up a few times in the publications, along with other great old wheat names like Pacific Blue Stem and Gold Rush, which I filed away for rainy day research.
It wasn’t until I was preparing for a talk I would be giving to a gathering of cereal chemists in Austin, TX, that I really came to appreciate Marquis’ place in history. Trying to better educate myself on the differences between modern breeding and how wheat seed used to be selected, I was directed by Monica Spiller (www.wholegrainconnection.org) to find the book Essays On Wheat, by A.H. Reginald Buller, published in 1919. It’s no longer in print (Not currently on a best sellers list? Shocking!) but I did find a pdf version online, which I was able to download.
Essays On Wheat begins with a detailed account of the establishment of the Red River Colony in what is now Manitoba, Canada. In the early 1800s, Hudson’s Bay Company granted 116,000 square miles of land to the 5th Earl of Selkirk, Scotland, Thomas Douglas. To read it is to travel back in time for a condensed version of European settlers attempting to colonize North America.
It’s impossible to read the first chapters without feeling the sense of shame that comes with revisiting history through the lens of 2020 culture and politics, understanding the devastation our European ancestors brought to indigenous people and their way of life. As a United States citizen, I also didn’t have an understanding of Hudson’s Bay Company and the role it played in Canada’s history. That’s another eye-opening reading assignment. As I write this, I feel and appreciate the gathering momentum for telling the stories of lost nations and their land stewardship and how they may hold clues to saving our planet. Many writers and film makers are surely hoping that by telling those stories now it’s not too late to nurture the knowledge that existed before us, knowledge we chose to bulldoze over instead of embrace. We must acknowledge and take action.
As for the wheat crops, what I believe Monica wanted me to understand was the progression from small groups of immigrants traveling to foreign lands with precious amounts of seed to the proliferation of reliable, higher quality wheat varieties that would take turns dominating the agricultural landscape. In other words, how did we get to where we are today? Mr. Buller has journaled a useful roadmap.
Naturally, Lord Selkirk’s settlers would have brought both spring and winter wheat seed from their homeland of Scotland to plant in Canada. What they didn’t bring were farmers and equipment! In 1812, the settlement at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers had all of twenty men to begin construction and farming, mostly fishermen, and no plow or harrow, only a hoe.
It’s difficult to read about the bitter fight to establish a colony with sustainable crops, especially the very first years of 1812 to 1820. Small, successful harvests here and there were greatly outnumbered by crop failures due to events both natural and manmade, all of quite biblical proportions: Multiple plagues of locusts! A hurricane! Famine! Rival fur traders and indigenous peoples rightfully fighting to preserve their civilizations, burning and pillaging the nascent villages.
By 1820, no wheat seed of European origin was left to plant and a small envoy was sent to the United States, Wisconsin to be precise, to purchase seed. No written record remains that might tell us the name of the wheat seed they returned with. Even with this replenishment, however, famine and natural disasters were the norm for several more decades. Decades. I like to think I’m pretty tough, doing this work, but there’s no way I would have lasted under the same circumstances. Enough of the settlers were made of tougher stuff than me, though, and not only persevered, but eventually thrived.
The 1870s mark significant events and turning points that led directly to the development of Marquis wheat.
•First, the Purifier was introduced in Minnesota: Invented in France, this machine allowed millers to more efficiently remove bran particles, which meant they could now mill spring wheat and produce the same “whiteness” that up until that point was only achievable with winter wheat varieties. This gave spring wheat varieties and Western Canada a competitive leg up.
•Second, settlers began moving away from the rivers and into the prairies. Notably, the Mennonites from Russia, who brought with them White Russian wheat, which was ultimately supplanted by Red Fife as Canada’s most prolific wheat variety.
•Third, the establishment of the St. Paul Railway in 1878, which formed a link with the United States. Even more impactful was the July 1st, 1886 inauguration of the Canadian Pacific Railway, connecting Western Canada to Eastern Canada.
Ok, if you’re still with me, here’s where we are: We’re in the ’80s (the 1880s!), populations are growing, they are moving into the prairies, Red Fife has become the most widely planted wheat variety, and we have railroads connecting seed, wheat and flour across Canada and into the U.S. While Red Fife was the dominant hard red spring wheat variety with good yields as well as excellent milling and baking characteristics, it also had issues. In years with early frost, Red Fife was often frozen in the field before harvest, and anxious farmers were calling out for a spring wheat that would mature a little earlier. Even one to two weeks could make all the difference between successful harvest or complete crop failure.
Dominion Experimental Farm
As Canadian agriculture continued to expand, so did research and horticultural experiments aimed at improving and adapting crops to Canada’s climate. Dr. William Saunders, very important to Canada’s agriculture and horticultural history, was a pioneer in this realm. He founded the Canadian Pharmaceutical Society and the Entomological Society of Canada, to name just a couple of his many accomplishments. He was most famous for his work centered on improving fruit varieties by crossbreeding, specifically raspberries, currants, gooseberries and grapes. In 1886, Saunders and John Carling, Canada’s Minister of Agriculture, successfully lobbied for the establishment of an experimental farm tasked with research and development of solutions for Canada’s farmers on multiple fronts including crops, animal husbandry and forestry.
Dr. Saunders was appointed the first Director of the Dominion Experimental Farm in Ottawa, and he was joined in the work by his two sons Charles E. Saunders and A.P. Saunders. William continued his work with fruit, but also directed research to begin on finding a suitable spring wheat alternative to Red Fife, one that would ripen earlier in the field.
Seed Selection Phase 1 – Bring in seed from elsewhere
Wheat seed was brought from all over the world to be grown in test plots alongside Red Fife. Most were discovered to be as late ripening as Red Fife, but some wheat varieties from Russia and India usually ripened earlier. Ladoga, from Lake Ladoga in Russia, was the first to hold promise, ripening a full 10 days earlier and with comparable yields. Small amounts of seed were sent to several hundred farmers across Canada, who reported back favorably.
Wheat is slow food, though. It took several years to grow out and build up enough volume to meet the quantity needed for true milling and baking quality tests. It took until 1892 to obtain the necessary full carload – 6 years. Remember that by this point in history industrial roller mills were well established and a “small test batch” at that scale demanded thousands of pounds of grain.
Sadly, Ladoga did not deliver on the milling and baking front. Mills and bakeries reported weak dough strength, unattractive yellow pigment, and a coarse texture. Six years and their first best hope was a disappointment.
Seed Selection Phase 2 – Traditional plant breeding, or crossbreeding
Simultaneously, in 1888 Saunders and his sons began making hundreds of crosses, using Red Fife or White Fife as one of the parent plants. Buller quotes from one of Saunders’ farm reports, outlining for us the traditional wheat breeding method:
The pollen was taken from the flower of one kind of wheat and placed on the stigma of another kind from which the stamens had been removed; and the cross-bred kernel resulting was saved as seed for the next year.
Crossbreeding is not genetic modification. It is crossing, or mating, two parents from the same species, not injecting genetic material from an entirely foreign species into another. And here we can begin to more fully understand just how slow is slow. After making crosses, planting each individual resulting seed, then growing, evaluating, selecting those with potential, you would then repeat the process multiple times. Eventually, you could begin to narrow down those with real potential. By 1901 they had 58 varieties that were interesting enough to have been assigned names and documentation of parentage. 1888 to 1901 = 13 years!
Why so slow? The short answer is: two parents can give birth to wildly different siblings. Just go observe your own family at the dinner table, lol! Here’s the long answer as provided by Buller:
…New varieties are not obtained in one generation only; for a cross-bred kernel, in succeeding generations, always gives rise to a large number of plant types which differ from one another in one or more characters – such as length and strength of straw, length, compactness, and uprightness of the heads, the color and hairiness of the chaff, presence or absence of awns, color, shape, size, and milling qualities of the grains, liability of the grains to shell, earliness in maturing, resistance to diseases, baking qualities of the flour, and so forth – and most careful selection through a series of years is necessary in order to isolate the best of its progeny.
As you can see, many years of work requiring great attention to detail are required, attention that eventually William Saunders no longer had available to devote to wheat, given the vast scope of work at the Experimental Farm. For several years the studies and experiments languished with only minimal effort put into maintaining some plots and small harvests. In 1903 the government appointed William’s son, Dr. Charles E. Saunders, to take on the wheat breeding program.
Upon his appointment, Charles went back through all of the mixed wheats and carefully made his own re-selections from the hundred or so varieties remaining, each containing several strains, which led to his discovery of Marquis wheat one year later, in 1904. The breeding documentation showed Marquis to be the result of a cross made in 1892 by his brother, A.P., when all three Saunderses were working together at the farm.
Essays On Wheat, page 151: The male parent of the cross was Red Fife and the female an early ripening Indian wheat known as Hard Red Calcutta. It is to be noted, however, that Hard Red Calcutta is a trade expression, not for one particular variety of wheat but for a mixture of several varieties. There must, therefore, always be a certain amount of doubt as to the exact type which served as the female parent when the cross was made.
The few grains of Marquis from the original tests were planted in the spring of 1904 and after harvest, its potential was judged based on the grains from one single head of wheat – all that could be spared – and by Charles Saunders employing the chewing method. Wait, what? Yes, that’s right. He put the grain in his mouth, crunched and chewed like bubble gum, then examined the resulting elastic mass for color and elasticity. The whiter the color the better (ugh, the more things change…) and the more rubber-like the stronger for bread baking. Several years of growing out crop quantities would follow, each one confirming the promise of Marquis. And from that point we have a winner and we are off to the races. Although Buller wins again for the best wheat quality testing technique summary:
Rigorous tests for the milling and baking qualities of Marquis, made with the new apparatus in the winter of 1906–1907 and the following years, fully confirmed the original estimates which had been arrived at by using the teeth as grindstones and the mouth as a substitute for an oven.
You have to love it, but I’ll stick to my millstones and convection baking, thanks anyway.
Sowing Seed and Crossing Borders
The real sowing of Marquis wheat began in earnest in 1909, when there was enough seed to distribute among multiple farmers in Western Canada. It continuously proved its merit with excellent yields and quality. Even in unfavorable growing conditions it outperformed its benchmark, Red Fife.
Word of its success traveled quickly, and before long Marquis crops had spread across Canada and into the United States. In the fall of 1913 over 100,000 bushels (a bushel = 60 pounds, so 6,000,000 lbs.) was imported into the U.S. to serve farmers in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. At the time, that was quite a statement! From there the statement grew and became even louder. By 1915, Buller and his U.S. university and agricultural contacts estimated Marquis accounted for 65–75% of total spring wheat crops in those three northern states alone. By the time Buller was writing his Essays On Wheat, you could add even more states, although in smaller acreage: Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Washington, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and yes, eventually, California.
One Wheat To Rule Them All
For a time, Marquis held the top position: the one that ruled them all. Which, as fascinating as the story is, brings us directly to the problems we face today. The holy grail became developing the one wheat variety that could reproduce the same success, no matter where it was planted. We stopped planting wheat seed based on how it was suited to its specific environment or microclimate. Instead of matching seed to nature, we have been demanding nature bend to the seed, and only one very specific type of seed – high yielding hard red, perfectly suited to the industrial roller milling process, which meets the needs of white refined flour for industrial scale baking and cheap white bread. That’s a mouthful! And it doesn’t taste very good!
The real cost of this drive has been the destruction of our soil health through endless cycles of chemicals and monocropping, as the holy grail of wheat remains elusive. Marquis wheat is in no way the cause of this. It pre-dates the Green Revolution and modern dwarf wheat varieties. It is, however, an excellent case study that tracks with the most consequential, philosophical changes in agriculture.
The Marquis wheat I am milling was grown in Texas and was sent to me by my friend James Brown, who owns Barton Springs Mill just outside Austin. Thank you, James for sharing some of your harvest! I had purchased some of his Marquis flour previously and really loved its very unique flavor and aromatics. It’s a fun wheat to bake with and has wonderful extensibility. It definitely behaves like an older wheat, showing not quite the same oomph in its gluten strength, but it’s plenty strong for artisan baking and absolutely delivers in the flavor and texture categories. In spite of its market dominance back in the day, I wonder how it would really do compared to today’s hard red spring wheats with so much more gluten muscle. At over 100 years old, Marquis is now considered an heirloom variety and is also public seed, meaning it is not patented or owned by one of the big seed companies. Those are definitely appealing factors to consider for those of us attempting to reignite regional grain systems. The need to be free of corporate seed dominance and to build up local seed resources is real and a constant struggle.
Advocates like me will tell you the holy grail of wheat is actually diversity, not one variety to rule them all. To tie this post up in a neat little package, I’ll return to why I was instructed to read about Marquis in the first place. A year ago, the cereal chemists were examining just how interested they should be in heirloom wheat and grain. My answer to them was that they should be very, very interested, but not if the intention was to simply insert older varieties into the current industrial model.
I hope you don’t mind, but I spoke on your behalf, using my past 6 years as a small-scale flour producer to communicate what I see in the marketplace. I framed for them what I have observed to be the most important priorities for me, my customers and those in my regional grain network.
- Health: healthy soil, healthy farmers, healthy communities, healthy flour, healthy food
- Diversity: diversity of grain, diversity of land owners, diversity of growers, diversity of producers, diversity of flavor
- Transparency: Who is growing our food? How? Where? How is it being processed?
- Regenerative practices: regeneration of soil and farming practices as well as regenerative food, meaning whole grains and natural fermentation
Immediately after me, the head wheat breeder for a major university spoke. He began by paying homage to his personal hero, Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. Then, he began to extoll all the virtues of his new and improved red wheat variety that he hoped had the right stuff to take over the world. And I quote, “Surely, this is the diversity Nan was just talking about.”
Wow, seriously?! No, it isn’t. Not even close. He clearly hadn’t heard me at all, which means he certainly can’t hear you, dear consumer, because at least I was in the same room with him! To further illustrate for you the trouble we are in, let’s put some real numbers to this.
- Buller documented commodity wheat prices in his book. In 1919, the fixed price for Grade 1 Manitoba Northern wheat was $2.24 per bushel, which equals about $.04 per pound.
- I looked online for U.S. commodity wheat pricing on 8/27/20, while writing this piece. One hundred and one years later, the fixed price for Hard Red Spring wheat was $5.25 per bushel, or about $.09 per pound. In 100 years, the commodity price of wheat has gone up only $.05 a pound. Do you think costs of farming the land have had such a tiny, relative increase?
The U.S. agricultural policy of Get Big or Get Out simply has not delivered for the farmers. Yields and market pricing haven’t increased nearly enough to compensate for the astronomical costs of chemical dependency. Now let’s bring it home to California, where decreases in wheat crop acreage are alarming and directly tied to loss of profitability for the farmers. Per California Wheat Commission data:
- 1982 was the year of the highest recorded acres planted to wheat with 1,150,000 acres. 98% of that was harvested for human consumption, which means it went to mills and/or food producers. The remaining 2% was green chopped for cattle feed.
- This past year was the absolute lowest on record, with only 425,000 acres planted to wheat. 74% of that wheat was green chopped for cattle feed, while only 26% was harvested for human consumption.
Those are scary numbers. Our wheat growers make more money feeding cattle than feeding us. If you are interested in change, this is a call to action. Wherever you are, please support local grain efforts. Know that our grain and flour can’t remain at commodity price levels. That is fiction leading to devastation. Real, handmade bread shouldn’t be the same price as your daily latte. Our voices must become as loud and influential as the Marquis crop yields in 1913. And then even louder.